What David Bowie can teach us about leadership

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By Biagio W. “Bill” Sciacca, Ph.D.

Most classic rock songs have the same philosophy behind their engineering mix. Picture an ocean or body of water during the storm. At the very bottom you have this general murkiness which doesn’t really change because of the weather, but actually, doesn’t really change because of anything. You then have the body of water itself, containing rip tides, back currents and a general state of natural unruliness. On the very top, are the whitecaps; the waves.

Most classic rock mixes have that philosophy. The very bottom, tends to be your bass and drums which lay the underlying heartbeat of the song. Above that are the guitars and keyboards, where most instrumental expression occurs. And on the very top, the whitecaps tend to be the vocals.

In April 1973 with the release of the “Aladdin Sane” album, David Bowie tried to change that. The first song on that album, “Watch That Man,” elevated the bass and drums and devolved the vocals, making the vocals sound like another instrument. If you listen closely to the song, what you will hear is a sonic journey of homogenous sounds where no specific instrument, or vocal range is highlighted. David Bowie, being a master of his craft even at a very young age, pulled this off nicely.

Keep in mind, Bowie did not try to elevate the stature of the bass or the drums as instruments, nor degrade the value of the vocals, but intended to make all the various parts of his fine ensemble sound the same. The process was a brilliant representation of creativity and originality.

I believe that process of homogenization of sounds that worked so well for Bowie can work in leadership as well as rock sound engineering.

Let me explain.

When most people think of leaders, they think of the smiling, well-groomed, charismatic individual who has the ability to inspire and motivate (the white caps). What we don’t see directly underneath that motivational façade, is the daily application of intense mental effort necessary to project that image (the general body of water). Below that mental effort is the day-to-day hard work that is required for a position of leadership (the bottom of the body of water).

Most individuals will separate the tasks of being charismatic, intense mental effort and hard work. While I am not suggesting that that is not relevant or true, may I suggest that perhaps David Bowie’s philosophy on “Watch That Man” might be a possibility for some leaders in some situations.

What if a situation arose in which we can blend hard work (bass and drums), intense mental effort (guitar and keyboards), and our own personal charismatic style (vocals) in such a way that the entire process of leadership and, more importantly, communicating the message that the role of leadership implies, is positive, compelling and motivational?

This process of homogenization of leadership efforts requires some forethought. But if executed correctly can come across as effortless.

I believe Steve Jobs was an example of this effortless execution of leadership through the homogenization process.

He was an extremely hard worker, a mentally intense individual, and a charismatic speaker in the fields he felt qualified to speak in. You knew just from listening to him that all the above, in terms of hard work, mental intensity and preparation were present, but he came across smooth and unproblematic.

Could he, in fact, have been a student of the homogenization process of leadership? Perhaps.

So how can you incorporate this process of hard work, mental intensity and charisma into a unified whole?

Here are a few things to think about:

1. Any strength overused becomes a weakness. If you are naturally charismatic and that is the only arrow in your quiver, you will be perceived as hollow. If you gravitate toward mental intensity and that is your primary focus, you will be viewed as a brain with no teeth. If hard work is your modus operandi and all you do is grind, grind, grind, you will be viewed as a slave driver and a taskmaster.

2. Think about your outcome before you start. You may find that one of the three areas requires more emphasis than another based upon what you are trying to accomplish.

3. Don’t be afraid to ask for assistance. Even the most seasoned executive needs to have his or her assumptions questioned and the conclusions reality tested. This is not evidence of weakness; rather, it shows strong character and great judgment.

I wish Steve Jobs were alive today. I am sure he would find the correlation of David Bowie and leadership to be amusing. Frankly, as I was listening to “Watch That Man” on the classic vinyl satellite radio station, I, myself, found it amusing.

It actually got me thinking that perhaps leadership principles can be found in manifold venues. Whether the insight is relevant, its exploration is priceless.

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